Called to Live
When my son died, I wanted to die too. The pain and shock of the abrupt separation mingled with feelings of guilt and confusion, leaving me empty and disoriented. I had devoted the last two years of my life, since his diagnosis of schizophrenia, to his care. After he left, I didn’t know why I was supposed to stay on. I thought I had lived a long life and—to my perception—endured enough pain. My husband was strong and my kids were all grown up.
I asked God to take me and made preparations. The few people who knew looked at me with either pity or apprehension. But I was not depressed; I was just being honest with God and waited on his answer. As the days passed and I was still here, I realized he was not done with me in this life.
I didn’t know why he needed me here or what he would call me to do next, but the pile of dishes in the sink was a clear indication that I was called to wash them. I continued my daily life, doing what I knew God wanted me to do moment by moment—mostly simple things that needed to be done, remembering they were not less important than rushing my son to the ER or standing up for his rights.
God’s instructions for our calling in this life are simple: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17). His specific illustrations (circumcision or slavery) may not apply directly to us, but the principle is the same whatever our place in life. If we are alive, that’s because God has called us to live, even if we don’t understand why. Just over the last month, I have talked to three people who are deeply perplexed as to why God is keeping them in this life. Two have experienced a long life of suffering, and one is weighed down by old age and all the limitations it entails.
It’s true that it’s not always easy to recognize God’s reasons for taking a person from this world and leaving another one here. In this respect, the popular Christian answer, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” doesn’t seem helpful. In fact, it can be outright harmful, especially when accompanied by overt or hidden suggestions that this plan must be discovered. And since “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29), the inquiring person is often left with feelings of inadequacy, confusion, or despair.
God does have a wonderful plan: his overarching plan of salvation of a fallen world through Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the unifying message of the Bible. Where our individual life and specific circumstances fit in this plan is really not important (in spite of our egotistic attempts to believe otherwise). What’s important—and amazing—is where we fit in Christ as members of his kingdom and part of his story.
Likewise, our primary calling as Christians, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”A friend recently told me, “I find comfort in knowing that no matter how chaotic my brain and body might feel, I am sure of the fact that I am called to glorify Him, and that rightly orients me. It allows me the space to distinguish between my suffering and my calling. We exist to glorify God, and all the rest is context.”
In the same letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives a similar objective definition of our calling, reminding us that we are “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 7:23) and given freedom to serve Christ. Of course, this is only comforting if we know the Christ we are serving. As in everything else, our experience has to be grounded on this knowledge. I am grateful for a church that faithfully preaches the gospel and reminds me, week after week, who God is and who I am in Christ—because even private reading, as important as it is, can get entangled with my emotions. That’s why Martin Luther gave much importance to the gospel preached as an external and objective announcement that brings clarity to our inner confusion.
What Acceptance is Not
Accepting God’s calling is not passive resignation. Paul makes it clear when, after telling slaves not to be concerned about their status, he adds, “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor. 7:21). In other words, we can serve Christ wherever He wants us without giving up hope or making legitimate efforts to relieve our suffering or improve our circumstances.
Accepting God’s calling is also not a resentful compliance to a situation where we feel “stuck.” What gave me the strength to go on after my son’s death was not a passive-aggressive acknowledgment of God’s superiority (“Well then, you want me here, so be it”).
Job kept up this attitude for a while, but he could only accept God’s calling after God’s revelation of Himself caused Job to sheepishly admit his own narrow-mindedness: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3).
Likewise, accepting God’s calling is not a gloomy surrender to an inevitable “vale of tears.” While pain is a persistent reality in this fallen world, our life on earth is not meant as a prelude to Purgatory. For Christians, it’s a pilgrimage to the place Christ has gone on to prepare for us, where the realities we see vaguely will be manifested in full. And thankfully, he gives us glimpses of those joys even in the here and now.
God With Us
It’s also important to remember that God is not like a mother who asks a child to sit still because she’s too busy with other matters. Even our moments of apparent uselessness have a place in his overarching story, and he never leaves us to face life on our own. The same God who said to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and the people of Israel, “I will be with you” has promised to be with us until the end of this age. And that’s how Paul concludes his paragraph on God’s calling: “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor. 7:24).
Recognizing God’s presence as the powerful Conqueror who is at this very moment bringing history to its exciting fulfilment brings our circumstances (and our various callings) into perspective. God is with me while I write this article, while I do the dishes, and while I lay awake at night. He’s not too busy to be with me in seemingly insignificant moments while he turns the wheels of history. This might not always be evident to my limited perception, but the same Christ who rose from the dead tells me it’s a reality on which I can count.